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New research shows that helping children resolve past conflicts may be beneficial

November 21, 2006

Source: University of Waterloo

When young children argue with their siblings, they are rarely counselled to address their conflicts after the fighting is over. Rather than encouraging children to forget past disagreements, it might be better for parents to use these quarrels to help their children develop skills in conflict resolution.

That's the conclusion of researchers at the universities of Waterloo and Chicago, who asked 64 pairs of siblings, between the ages of four and 12, to try to solve an ongoing conflict.

The study, reported in the November/December 2006 issue of the journal Child Development, found that at the time conflicts occur, it's difficult for siblings to negotiate constructively and compromise with one another. In contrast, when dealing with past disagreements, many children are able to discuss their differences productively and to resolve their conflicting interests.

"By not encouraging after-the-fact negotiations, parents may be losing a valuable opportunity to inspire children to take their siblings' interests into account and to develop effective conflict-resolution skills," concludes Hildy Ross, lead author of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

Research shows that children don't readily forget past grievances. But siblings were able to resolve past differences when they worked together, compromised and made flexible plans for the future.

When children failed to discuss the future or lobbed accusations at each other, they were unable to resolve these conflicts. Even when disagreements were expressed in a reasoned or toned-down manner, they often stood in the way of solutions.

Much of the time, older siblings were the leaders in efforts to resolve conflicts -- suggesting, modifying, justifying and asking their younger siblings to accept proposed solutions. Younger siblings countered and disagreed, but they also helped plan and, quite often, agreed to their older brothers' and sisters' plans. When older siblings thought highly of their younger siblings, the children were more likely to reach a compromise.

Ross and her colleagues were seeking to determine whether young children can negotiate with each other to resolve long-standing disagreements, learn whether siblings can reach compromises that allow both children to meet at least some of their goals and identify strategies used when children agree and when they fail to resolve their differences.

The research into how parents can help children resolve sibling differences continues. The researchers are seeking families, with children between the ages of four and 10, interested in participating. To learn more or to volunteer, families should visit link or contact the family studies lab at UW by phone at 519-888-4567 ext. 32094.



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